The global gem trade is a fascinating place, and nobody knows it better than Charles Carmona. Known as one of the top appraisers in his field, Charles founded appraisal firm Guild Labs in 1980 and has grown it into a global business with offices in Los Angeles and China. He joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about where his interest in gems comes from, his adventures traveling the world looking for gems, and his future plans for his business. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Charles Carmona, a graduate gemologist of the Gemological Institute of America who is designated as an accredited senior appraiser by the American Society of Appraisers. He is the founder of the appraisal firm Guild Labs, which is based in Los Angeles and works around the world. Today, he’ll tell us about how he transformed his passion into a well-respected business. Charlie, so glad to have you.
Charles: Thank you, my pleasure.
Sharon: Tell us about your jewelry journey. When did you start becoming attracted to gems and jewelry? What was it that sparked your interest? What is it that holds your interest?
Charles: In high school, I took a summer school class that was about earth sciences. Twice a week for six weeks, we would go out into the desert here in Southern California and look for gems and minerals, and that was what got me hooked on this business.
Sharon: Let’s talk more about the rest of your journey. You’ve dealt with a lot of gems, but what is it today that keeps your attention? People have passions in high school and then they move on, so what is it that keeps your attention?
Charles: There’s the gems, of course. It’s so interesting and fascinating. I love the science of it, and I love the beauty of it, and I love the history of it. I also like the people involved. It’s such an international business. I meet so many interesting people while I’m doing business, and I just love it.
Sharon: So, you became a graduate gemologist. Did you decide to do that right after high school? I know you’re an expert in so many areas, numismatics and all kinds of jewelry. When did you get to GIA on your jewelry journey?
Charles: I was living in South America working in engineering in the oil business and decided that—I was in my late twenties—I really wanted to go into the gem business, because I was already in South America. From my very basic knowledge, I started buying stones, emeralds in Colombia and semiprecious stones in Brazil, and bringing them back to Los Angeles and selling them. I realized I didn’t know what I was doing, so I took six months off and went to the GIA, which was here in Los Angeles at the time. That started it all.
Sharon: Where you were in South America, were you surrounded by the world of gems? Did you see a lot of people involved in that world?
Charles: When I went to the gem trading centers—South America, of course, is a huge area, and I wasn’t in the gem business yet, but I did have contacts. I went to Bogota, which is the center of the emerald world, and I went to Brazil, which is the center of all the other stones, and I met people through contacts. As soon as you show that you can spend some money, then all of a sudden they love you, and that’s how I started there. It was just walking in and taking chances. I got lucky most of the time, and that was what got me into the business.
After GIA, I went back to my science and engineering background and decided I wanted to do the gem testing part of it. There was no competition at the time, whereas there was so much competition in sales. It was a slow transition into the gem testing and appraisal part of the business.
Sharon: Did you start trading in other gems besides emeralds?
Charles: Yes, I started with emeralds. When I was in Brazil, there were tourmalines and aquamarines and some other stones. Eventually, I went to Asia and became familiar with the ruby and sapphire trade, which are basically Asian stones. I never sold a diamond until after I went to GIA and learned about diamonds. Eventually, I was involved in diamonds and got to know that business.
Sharon: Wow! You sound fearless, stepping into worlds you haven’t been in. You traveled to Asia and said, “O.K., what’s going on here?” To me you sound fearless; that’s the word that comes to mind.
Charles: I’ll accept that. I was very eager. I loved the business and I loved the people. As long as I could cover my expenses, that’s all I was concerned about at the time. Now I’m a little more cautious, though.
Sharon: You’re a GG, a graduate gemologist, and you’re a senior appraiser from the American Society of Appraisers. If somebody’s looking for an appraiser, why is that important?
Charles: The accreditation from the ASA, the American Society of Appraisers, is really the top level that exists in our trade, in the appraisal profession, and I wanted to be doing the highest level of appraisals. There are many appraisers that don’t bother to take any courses or really learn about the theory of appraising, and there’s plenty of work for them. Basically, it’s just basic insurance appraisals working through jewelers. But early on, I was contacted by a lawyer who needed help on some kind of lawsuit. I don’t remember the issues of it, but it was fascinating. He was asking me all of these questions, and I didn’t have an understanding of the law to be able to respond well, so I decided I needed to get a professional education in appraising. That’s what the American Society of Appraisers gives you, the background relating to appraising, but to see it through the eyes of an attorney or an accountant or insurance companies. It gives you that education in order to do the highest level of appraising.
Sharon: I know you’ve done quite large collections and significant collections, so I’m sure the people who hire you are looking for that kind of education and accreditation. When somebody comes to you for an appraisal of a significant piece of jewelry, what questions are you surprised they don’t ask you?
Charles: In the beginning—and I’m now over 40 years in business—there were a lot of really clueless clients. Now, of course, there’s so much more information on the internet. It’s great when people come in and ask all the right questions, but when I sit with them and go through the basics of the report, I always answer the questions they don’t ask. The first one is how much it’s going to cost and my fees. My hourly rate is among the higher here in Los Angeles because I think it’s worth it; I’m worth it. As for other questions, they don’t really understand the appraisal process or, if it’s for insurance, what’s involved. If there’s a high-value collection, they need to understand what insurance is about. If they don’t ask me that, I ask them the question and then help them understand it.
Sharon: I know if anybody mentions jewelry appraisal in Los Angeles, you’re the first name everybody says. “Oh, do you know Charlie?” You’re at the top of the list. People know you and your education and what you’ve done.
Tell us about Guild Labs. When did you decide to form a firm? So many appraisers are independent. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s a one-person firm, or they don’t have a corporate office like Guild Labs.
Charles: At the beginning of our conversation, we were all just walking into it. It’s been an evolution since then, and fortunately I spoke to the right people who gave advice or suggestions of which way I should go. Early on, during my travels before starting this business, I had gone to gem shows locally and around the country and overseas as well, so I was looking to make it an international business rather than just a local appraisal company. Early on, I started taking booths at the trade shows, at the gem shows, myself. I was behind the table, so to speak, meeting clients that way instead of wandering around trying to meet the dealers. That’s what eventually led to me meeting my Chinese partners. I now have offices in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, China, and Bangkok, Thailand. We also have another office in China. It’s been a very exciting jewelry journey, if I may coin a phrase.
Sharon: I think it’s ingenious to take a booth at one of the shows. You really don’t see appraisers selling their wares, which is what the shows are for. Did you find that people were looking at who you were with, whether you were a sole practitioner or if you had more resources behind you? What made you decide to form a corporation? From a business perspective, I’m interested.
Charles: It was the logical next step to expand. I enjoyed the business so much I was looking for more ways to expand the business, of course. I’m very fortunate that I’m in a business I enjoy and that I’m able to make a good living. You definitely have to go to work every day. You’re correct in that even to this day, I go to the big gem show in Tucson, Arizona, in February, which of course is canceled this year. I’m the only gemologist appraiser on the floor of the convention center. There are hundreds and hundreds of gem sellers, and I’m the only one there. All the appraisers whom I have met through the American Society of Appraisers—and most of them are working out of the back bedroom of their house, very small operations—they come by my booth at the gem shows and say, “Boy, this must cost a lot of money to do this, to have this booth and stay 10 days in Tucson. Is it really worth it?” And I ticked off the things I’ve done because I was at the booth. I’ve been lucky that I’ve made a lot of right decisions and the business has continued to expand. It’s a matter of all those old sayings about work and nothing coming easy. It’s true; you have to work hard and if you’re lucky, you’ll do well.
Sharon: You do have to work hard. With trade shows, you win some and you lose some. Sometimes you spend a lot of money and it doesn’t pay off, and sometimes it does pay off. It’s always that unknown you’re stepping into, but I give you credit for doing it. I think it’s fabulous. I know you’ve been involved with the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. Can you tell us about your involvement there?
Charles: Sure. In the early 80s, the Natural History Museum hired a new, young curator of the Gem and Mineral Hall. He had a lot of energy and wanted to reach out to the community. He came up with the idea of starting a support group for Gem and Mineral Hall, and it was called the Gem and Mineral Council. I’ve always loved the Gem and Mineral Hall and I would go there, I wouldn’t say frequently, but occasionally, and I met the curator at the time. Actually, I met him through my booth in Tucson, probably; I don’t even remember. Early on when they formed the Gem and Mineral Council, I was a charter member. Then I was asked to serve on the board of the Gem and Mineral Council, and eventually I became president of it. It was another very exciting and interesting journey that took me there, and I’ve been active at the museum ever since.
I do take credit for bringing in the jewelry industry and making that contact to the museum, which didn’t really exist. It’s taken a long time, but our jewelry industry in downtown Los Angeles has over 3,000 businesses, and most of them didn’t even know about the Natural History Museum and our incredible gem and mineral collection there. I’ve been working on connecting the Diamond Club here to the GIA Alumni Association. We have a holiday party every December at the Natural History Museum in the rotunda, in the central area where all the dueling dinosaur skeletons are in the Gem Hall. It’s been a great collaboration and I’m really excited. They’re great people. I love the museum people.
Sharon: It does sound exciting. The museum has really renewed itself, and it sounds like you’ve been part of it. It’s become a happening place in many ways.
Charles: Well, of course, until Covid.
Sharon: Yes, yes.
Charles: Today, we’re 10 months into Covid and the museum’s been closed for most of that time. It never really reopened, but we’re looking forward to doing it again. Our Natural History Museum in Los Angeles just broke ground for a new addition to one corner of it, and that’s going to be an exciting addition to the museum. It’ll be a few years before they finish it, but there will be a new auditorium and a new entrance hall. It’s going to be so exciting. I’m looking forward to that.
Sharon: I think we’re all looking forward to being over Covid and moving on to the rest of life. Has the pandemic affected your business at all?
Charles: Here in Los Angeles, we closed down for seven weeks back in March of last year, but I’ve bounced back pretty quickly. With all the work I do with attorneys and accountants, that makes me an essential service. So, I was able to continue the work. I’m not really a retail business, even though the public does come in; that was restricted, but after the seven weeks of complete shutdown, we opened. It took a few months before it was back up to a normal level, but we had help from the government and it was perfect for us.
Sharon: Did it change any of the questions people asked you? Do they ask different or additional questions because of the pandemic?
Charles: Outside of the appraisal process, we put social distancing into place immediately so people would feel comfortable to come in. We’ve got the distancing, and we’ve got masks and gloves and keep contact as safe as possible. As far as valuation of jewelry, it hasn’t changed that much. The business slowed down. The market slowed down, but now after one Christmas season, it’s pretty much back to normal for the companies that have survived.
Sharon: Yeah, that’s the key. That’s great. I know—because I’ve always wished I could go—that you’ve led groups on tours of gem mines around the world. Once we can travel again, what’s on your wish list, or what’s next?
Charles: Yes, those were among the best years of business so far. I led 10, 11 trips over a period of 15 years. For about half of them, my wife came along to help me as well. On one, one of my boys came to help me. I took groups mostly through the Natural History Museum. I was on their list of preferred tour leaders. We went to gem mining countries. We went to Brazil three times and took two trips to Thailand and Burma, went to the gem carving center in Germany and Sri Lanka and Madagascar and India. It was great. Our expenses certainly were covered. It wasn’t a big money maker for me, but it created so much goodwill with me and my contacts in the gem mining countries. It was all part of the big picture, if you will. That was how I was becoming very well-known internationally, because I was bringing in these groups from the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum to these countries to expose them to that and, of course, to buy merchandise. It was win/win all around.
Unfortunately, in 2008 with the downturn in the economy, the banking crisis, I had to cancel a trip to Australia, which was going to be my most ambitious of all. I was going to charter two turboprops, one for the group and one for all the luggage, and fly all around Australia. That didn’t happen. Everything came crashing down. I had to cancel that. Then, I was putting together a trip to Colombia in 2010, because things seemed to be improving there as far as safety in the gem mining areas, but then the violence flared up, and I had to cancel that. On my last trip, I took a group of government officials from Tanzania to Thailand, Sri Lanka and India as part of a World Bank project that I was consulting on. That was in 2014, and I haven’t led any trips since then. I do look forward to it, maybe Columbia. It’s the easiest; it’s in our hemisphere, it’s only a seven-hour flight, and I know everybody there and they’d love to have us. That’s what I’m looking forward to for the next trip, but no dates are picked out yet.
Sharon: I’ll have to get on your mailing list or watch your social media, because it sounds fabulous. What do people learn from it? I would presume that it’s not the kind of trip most people would take if they said, “O.K., I’m going to go to South America.” It would be more of a planned trip to see the sights. What do you think surprised people most about going to the mines?
Charles: Well, who are the people on the trip? About half of them are actual jewelers who don’t have the contacts to go visit the mine. It’s great marketing for them. They take selfies and put them up on their social media. The other half of the group are people from the museum, people interested in gems and minerals and jewelry. When I set up the itinerary with the dealers and the mine owners and the travel agents in the country where I go, I work hard to give the people on the trip a good experience that includes some historical things. It’s not only gems and minerals, because every country has so much tremendous history and culture. I try to mix that in a little bit and to make it one of those unforgettable experiences.
Sharon: So you’re a tour guide from many different aspects, it sounds like.
Charles: Yeah, just because I enjoy it.
Sharon: I’m curious what you were going to focus on in Australia. The diamond mines? Pearls? Was it in the northern part of Australia?
Charles: I was ready to send a $100,000 non-refundable deposit for two Fairchild turboprops, 15-passenger planes, to carry everybody around the country. We were going to hit all the major points. You mentioned diamonds, like the Argyle Diamond Mine. We weren’t going to get into the mine, but we could fly out there and go to the visitor center. I had contacts to get us into that. Of course, all the major opal mining regions: Coober Pedy for the white opal, Lightning Ridge for the black opal, and Queensland for the boulder opal, and also the sapphire mines in Queensland. It’s a huge continent, in that there are so many gem mining areas in Australia.
Sharon: Well, sign me up; I’ll go. I hope someday we can all do something like that.
Charles: Yeah, and they speak English, sort of, in Australia.
Sharon: That’s true. Charlie, thank you so much for being here today. I think you made people who love jewelry think more about the industry. Some people concentrate more on the jewelry; some are more attracted to the gems. I think you gave us a 360-degree picture of the industry. Thank you so much for being here today. We greatly appreciate it.
Charles: Thank you for inviting me. It was my pleasure. I love to talk about my business.
Sharon: Hopefully we’ll get to see each other in person someday soon at the museum.
Charles: At the museum or maybe at the Tucson Gem Show.
Sharon: That’s right. That’s going to be virtual this year, but some year—
Charles: I’ll be back next year. I’ll also be at the Las Vegas Jewelry Show at my booth there.
Sharon: Oh, do you have a booth there? I didn’t realize.
Charles: Yeah, the big jewelry show in June.
Sharon: Well, let’s say a prayer that will actually happen.
Charles: I hope so.
Sharon: Thank you again. We will have images posted on the website. You can find us wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. Please join us next time when our guest with be another jewelry industry professional who will share their experience and expertise. Thank you so much for listening.